Pinocchio is an Italian live-action adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio, though it’s a good bet many of you are more familiar with Disney’s 1940 adaptation. It’s been ages since I’ve seen that version but one thing I can say for sure based on my vague memory of it is that this version, directed by Matteo Garrone (Dogman, Tale of Tales), is much darker and far less enjoyable.
Despite the incredible, eye-catching visual spectacle of wonderful costumes, beautiful cinematography and a dark world of bizarre characters, the slow-paced, absurd – and generally pointless – story with an excessive runtime makes for an extremely pretty, but extremely boring experience. You’ll long for a singing cricket to liven things up.
Gepetto (Roberto Benigni) is a poor Italian carpenter, living alone and struggling to find work. After seeing a puppet theater run by Mangiafuoco (Gigi Proietti), Geppetto decides to build a wooden puppet named Pinocchio (Federico Ielapi) so he can tour the country and make money. He’s given a living log from his friend Mastro Ciliegia (Paolo Graziosi) and, during the process of creating his puppet, discovers that Pinocchio is alive and sentient. Ecstatic about this discovery, Gepetto decides to adopt Pinocchio as his son and, upon completion of his creation, sends the naive and disobedient wooden boy to school to get an education.
Pinnochio, however, is a curious and disobedient child who is easily distracted and doesn’t want to go to school. As soon as Gepetto proudly drops him off on his first day of school, Pinnochio leaves to watch the puppet theater and quickly finds himself carried away on an adventure that takes him far from home where he meets a bizarre mix of characters – some magical – who either help him on his journey to get home or take advantage of his naive nature and thus setting him back from finding his worried father who has also taken a journey of his own to find his missing son.
Federico Ielapi is fantastic as the naughty and naive Pinocchio who would rather explore the world and play instead of being stuck in a classroom or doing what he’s told. With the help of prosthetic makeup, Ielapi brings to life the energetic wooden boy who finds himself thrust into a cruel world after disobeying his father. Ielapi has that innocence coupled with being an annoying child down pat, which helps create a believable human-like child who happens to be carved from magical wood.
The real stand-out performance comes from Roberto Benigni who is absolutely brilliant as the struggling Gepetto who will literally give the clothes off his back to ensure his son can go to school. His performance will break your heart as you can’t help but connect with his character as his lonely and poverty-stricken life is changed with the introduction of a son. Suddenly this magical wooden boy brings Gepetto’s life new meaning and Benigni conveys his desperation to survive and the joy of fatherhood perfectly. My only gripe is that he isn’t in the film more because his performance is incredible.
Director Matteo Garrone, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Massimo Ceccherini, has made a visually spectacular, yet absurdly boring film. To be fair, the first 30 minutes is incredibly moving with the story primarily focused on Gepetto’s heart-breaking story brought to life by Roberto Benigni. By this point the story hasn’t gone too far down the path of weirdness and it’s actually quite engaging.
But as soon as Pinocchio goes off on his adventure and we delve into the remaining 85 minutes of runtime, we no longer focus on Gepetto and it becomes a very different cinematic experience. To be blunt – it becomes weird. A little too weird for my liking. Disjointed storytelling with very strange, unrelatable characters and a protagonist who simply isn’t very likeable makes this a very painful viewing experience. Pinocchio is essentially a little brat, and watching him consistently do the wrong thing over and over during the course of drawn-out, nonsensical and seemingly pointless scenarios doesn’t make you root for him. I wanted to go back and see what was happening to Gepetto because he’s the more interesting character. He’s the one you’re rooting for.
Ignoring the story and pacing that will put you to sleep (my wife did indeed fall asleep from boredom watching this with me), Pinocchio does have incredible visuals and style accompanied by strong, quirky performances across the board. The costumes and makeup are great. The camerawork and color grading creates a magical yet gritty, slightly off kilter feel. There’s simply no denying this film is a visual spectacle worth appreciating, but more as a form of visual art instead of an enjoyable piece of storytelling.
I’m pretty conflicted about this version of Pinocchio. On one hand, I saw masterful work by visual artists who’ve created a sumptuous treat for the eyes, so I won’t lie and say it’s not worth watching. On the other, I was so bored and divested from this fantasy world due to its artsy weirdness and unlikability of the main character that I’m also tempted to tell viewers to steer clear of it. If you enjoy movies for the sake of art, then Pinocchio is worth checking out, if only for the visuals and performances – specially a superb Roberto Benigni. If you care about an entertaining and engaging story, this adaptation is something you might want to avoid.